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Sid Meiers Alpha Centauri
Minimum specs: P166, 16Mb RAM
Developer: Firaxis
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: Turn-based Strategy
Release Date: Out now No Players: 4
UK price: £40.00 PC Gamer Score: 91%

Article first published: Issue 67
Writer:  Steve Owen

Setting

Sid Meier was himself quoted some years ago saying that, were he to work on a sequel to Civ II (where the game ended, in most cases, with the successful launch of a probe of colonists to Alpha Centauri), he wouldn’t set it in the future, his reasoning being that it’s hard to empathise with something we have no experience of.

And yet, clearly to escape any direct comparisons with his Civ games, this is exactly what Meier and his team (led by Brian Reynolds) at Firaxis have done with Alpha Centauri. The story has it that a malfunction on the ship to Alpha Centauri results in a rebellion and splintering of the colonists into seven distinct factions, based not on colour or birthplace, but on ethics and governmental policy. Each faction lands on the new planet and races to establish itself as the rightful owners of the land they have invaded, a world they have imaginatively called Planet.

Ideologies

When you begin Alpha Centauri, you are asked to take control of one of the seven ethical, economic or religious factions, each of which, as is traditional, has a range of strengths and weaknesses. Gaia’s Stepdaughters, for instance, is a faction obsessed with green issues, resulting in pacifism and an empathy with the natural fauna of planet. Human Hive is an authoritarian group of isolationists. Economy is poor, while population and industrial growth are above average.

University of Planet concentrates on research, sometimes at the expense of ethics, while Morgan Industries specialises in business and Free Market, resulting in commercial bonuses at the expense of demand for creature comforts.

Spartan Federation are survivalists believing in a right to bear arms, making them excellent soldiers, while the United Nations has spawned the Peacekeeping Forces. Finally, the religious fervour of the Lord’s Believers makes them fearsome soldiers resistant to brainwashing.
As before, there are a number of possible endings to the game, the worst, naturally, being your own destruction. Should you survive, you must conquer the other factions (or have them submit to your rule), be voted as the Supreme Ruler of Planet, or discover The Ascent to Transcendence, which elevates you to a god-like creature in-tune with Planet’s natural inhabitants.

Alpha still relies on the three familiar resources of minerals, food and gold; only they are now known as minerals, nutrients and energy. Energy is the new global currency.

Imagination

Even more so than Call To Power, Alpha relies on creating believable and worthwhile future technologies and advances. And yet they still stick within the structures defined within the present day - computing, exploration, increased happiness of the population and advanced thinking.

The difficulty comes when you first begin to play Alpha. What is a network node? Why should I build a Bioenhancement Centre (even if it does improve Neural Grafting)? Alpha demands constant references to the manual or on-line help file just to see what you’ll get out of the next step in your civilisation’s evolution, and to see whether your time might be better spent on an equally strange-sounding alternative. Sure enough, over time you begin to understand the importance of certain directions, but it’s like learning a new language at first.

Nevertheless, Alpha’s design is consistently impressive. Like a finely crafted sci-fi novel, this game draws you into a future world, elegantly described through quotes from invented books and speeches, and illustrated via voice-overs and video sequences. Wonders, in particular, have been replaced by a vast collection of Secret Projects, which are just as costly as before but bring rewards that are just as great.

 

 

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